Feminize Your Canon: Iris Origo


Feminize Your Canon

Our column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.

Iris Origo (courtesy La Foce)

Iris Origo might be the most self-effacing writer ever to gain renown as a diarist. Her reputation rests on her unique perceptions of others. As an aristocratic landowner in mid-twentieth-century Italy, she bore witness to all strata of Italian society during the long rise and precipitous fall of fascism.

The external circumstances of her life were unquestionably extraordinary. She participated in the final glittering years of prewar Europe’s cosmopolitan society; transformed a region of Italian countryside into a home still visited today for its beauty; and housed, during World War II, escaped prisoners and fleeing refugees. Her writing about this time evinced truths rarely seen in the narratives of historical texts, and did so through illustrative anecdotes that captured the people of the period and what they were feeling. In her diary of the years leading up to the war, A Chill in the Air, there is, for instance, an ever-increasing sense of being shut off from the rest of the world. Letters from England arrive a month late. What little reading material people can access becomes restricted. Origo recounts meeting, at a dinner party, a grad student who spends his nights, with fellow students, sitting up copying by hand an illicit New Republic essay about dictatorship. Iris writes of him, “I wish I could convey his odd mixture of childish pride at belonging to ‘the minority’ of real intelligence, and of something very sincere and tragic.” More than simply remain an anecdote about censorship, her observation captures the tragic paradox of this young man’s pride and sincerity, and his powerlessness in the face of what is to come.

A Chill in the Air and the diary that originally made Origo famous during her lifetime, War in Val d’Orcia, both belong to a retinue of Origo works being reissued by New York Review Books. The NYRB has followed up the diaries by publishing Images and Shadows, Origo’s autobiography, this month. Both volumes of diaries were reissued in 2018, two years after Donald Trump’s election and amid the widespread sense that Americans stood to learn something from the rise of fascism. Origo shows us the complacency of the upper classes, the questions over what news is true or false, which bears uncanny resemblance to our own era.

Origo’s autobiography shows that her reticence on personal matters ran deep. Comparing it with Caroline Moorehead’s definitive  biography, Iris Orgio: Marchesa of Val d’Orcia, displays an extensive gallery of omissions. Origo had, over the course of her life, three passionate and protracted affairs with men who get no mention in her autobiography. But her hesitation to talk about these relationships is not simply out of propriety; Moorehead also uncovers an intense friendship with a woman named Elsa Dallolio that was a major part of Origo’s late life. Her unwillingness to allow her intimate relationships into her autobiography exemplifies how Origo was always least interested in herself as a subject. She shifted her focus entirely to the people around her, and it was as much a benefit to her diaries as it was a detriment to her autobiography. But ultimately, her reserved narrative voice produced empathetic, sensitive work that uniquely illuminates a crux of modern history.


Origo’s youth was marked by wealth and constant travel. She’d later treasure memories of a brief, early period of childhood spent between family estates on Long Island and Ireland. When her father, Bayard Cutting, was diagnosed with tuberculosis, the family embarked a consumptive’s grand tour, hoping the next sanatorium in Saint Moritz, then California, then Egypt, would bring Bayard back to health. He died at age thirty, when Iris was seven years old. Bayard gave her mother, Sybil, instructions for continuing his daughter’s peripatetic regimen, now as a matter not of necessity but of principle: “All this national feeling makes people so unhappy. Bring her up somewhere where she does not belong, then she can’t have it.” He wanted Iris to be “free to love and marry anyone she likes, of any country, without its being difficult.” His wish was met, and as a result Iris would always feel an outsider wherever she was.

Her adolescence presented her with a confusing jumble of cultural styles. She lived in Florence, but among fashionable English expats. She survived an exhausting series of debutante seasons across Europe and in the U.S. Without feeling any one set of morals and manners to be natural, she felt out of place everywhere. In young adulthood, it was a recipe for social alienation. Later, however, this experience would give to Origo’s career as a writer the power to notice what others took for granted.

As an eighteen-year-old debutante, Iris met Antonio Origo, and they were soon engaged. In some ways, Origo’s passage into married adulthood represented a rejection of her youth. Both Iris and Antonio found in their marriage a “strong reaction” against their prescribed paths: Iris against society life and Antonio against the career in business that he had been trained for. In 1924, they bought La Foce, a sweeping estate in Tuscany still operating under the feudal system. The previous landlords had been heedless, and the people were starving on arid land, alienated from the comforts of modern life.

The Origos approached the neglected landscape as an opportunity to undertake a project in the service of the less fortunate. It was what they’d been looking for: “enough work for a lifetime.” In this difficult, remote, rural landscape, Origo seemed to find the self-possession she had been lacking, a place where for the first time her actions were not determined by societal strictures. It was at La Foce where Origo decided to be a writer and began producing acclaimed biographies of important figures from Italian cultural history.

Origo’s first and abiding writerly pursuit was biography. Among her subjects were the poet Giacomo Leopardi, the Franciscan priest Bernardino of Siena, and a fourteenth-century merchant banker; she also produced a dual biography of Lord Byron and his daughter. She gave herself a professional credo: “The biographer who puts his wit above his subject will end by writing about one person only—himself.” The results were discreet, meticulous books that garnered appreciation, but not lasting significance. Yet that same quality, when applied in her diaries to the everyday reality of fascism and war, gave the pulse of an entire people, capturing in a sort of group biography the experience of the Italian people.

War in Val d’Orcia was a success upon its publication in 1947. Origo published the diary as a way of quelling the lingering animosity felt by England for Italy. It is packed full of facts, displaying the historian’s rigorous attention to the concrete realities of war. Her anecdotes and observations demonstrate that the hardships suffered by Italians during the war were similar to those of the English, such as living in fear of bombing, and the opposition to fascism felt by many. The diary crackles with excitement—but in leaving out Origo’s own voice, Val d’Orcia exhibits an archival density that stifles the pathos at the heart of what is happening.

A Chill in the Air, conversely, was never intended for publication at all. As a result, Origo seems less intent on capturing every instance of conflict. The diary is not as dense with action, but it lingers more freely on the poignancy of fleeting moments and ordinary people. In that sense, it is the consummate achievement of Origo’s distinctive style. As a record not of World War II itself but of the rising forces of political illiberalism, it also offers a more direct parallel to our own time. It offers us a way of peering through a keyhole in the locked door of history, to understand the people in the situation that might soon become our own, not only as a warning but as a way of knowing that we are not unique, or alone.

A Chill in the Air begins in 1939 on a train to Rome crowded with Fascist squadistri. Origo is in a car with six of them, “stoutish, with their black shirts bulging at the waists.” The atmosphere among soldiers is like that of a “college reunion” as the men talk about what has been accomplished over the two decades of Fascism. Several days later, Origo is in a crowd of people listening to Mussolini over a speaker: “the guarded, colourless expression on most of the men’s faces—and the undisguised anxiety in the women’s.” Origo’s evocations of the crowd are vivid, and they imbue the inscrutable mythos of Fascism with humanity and individualism.

And yet her own feelings and anxieties are absent from the text. At a crucial moment just a month before war is declared, Origo and Antonio are traveling over the Swiss-Italian border. As they wait at the customs checkpoint, they see an Italian car heading for the Swiss border get turned away and sent back by the paramilitary. An officer returns their passports with a smile. “No more Italians jaunting abroad now!” he said. “Come in, and stay in!” As their car pulls away, Iris watches as “the pole of the barrier swung slowly back behind us.” The false cheerfulness of the guard followed by the dark omen of the closing gate echoes the dread that Origo may have been experiencing, but if so, the feeling goes unspoken; even remembering this incident again in her autobiography, she says that revisiting the moment brought back feelings “very vividly”—but we are meant simply to trust her, as the details of those feelings are never articulated.

A large part of War in Val d’Orcia records how the Origos transformed their estate into a checkpoint for fleeing prisoners of war and refugees. Had they been discovered, they would almost certainly have been executed. However, the dire stakes are often second to the recording of violence and disruption in their region. The most remarkable moments of pathos are those in which Origo records stories heard secondhand. An art historian smuggles paintings by Piero della Francesca down routes that are shaken with bombings. A boy of nineteen in Florence refuses to report for military service and is sentenced to death: he “faced the firing squad, unbound, with unflinching serenity, reciting ‘Our Father.’ On the following Sunday the Prior of San Miniato, in his sermon, mentioned the death of these three young men as a remarkable instance of Christian faith and courage, and was promptly arrested himself.” There is a timelessness to Val d’Orcia—reading it today has the same effect it did in the forties. We experience the war years not from the global stage of action but through the experience of the common Italian people.


Iris Origo, however, was not a political activist. Her and Antonio’s elevated social position entangled them financially and socially with Fascism. Mussolini’s agricultural subsidy program, the Bonifica Integrale, made La Foce into a case study, a fact recounted in Moorehead’s biography that gets only glancing mention in Images and Shadows. A Chill in the Air mentions Origo staying with friends, the Sennis—Catholics with aristocratic Italian lineage who are “all Fascists, but they are Catholics first.” She writes about Carlo Senni as a man loyal to Mussolini, a man whose “personal ascendancy” is built on the backs on “underlings” who know they will be “kicked away as soon as they cease to be useful.” Her critical assessment of his character is veiled; she follows with an entry about reading an article about the evils of anti-Semitism, which she agrees with. Her reactions to the world around her never accumulate to a direct rejection or condemnation of what she recognizes as evil.

The title of Origo’s autobiography is a signal to the reader not to expect a clear picture. The chronology of Images and Shadows is scattered, skipping back and forth to accommodate a full history of her ancestry; not until past a hundred pages does it move into Origo’s childhood in Fiesole. The reticence that created such a titillating narrative voice in her diaries has somehow gone stale. Images and Shadows becomes largely philosophical, with the chapter “On Writing” beginning, “Why does one write at all?” The best way to read Images and Shadows is to immediately follow it up with Moorehead’s biography, to watch the subject come alive. Why did Origo write at all? It seems a rare thing for a person with such an abiding interest in the personal to be so absent from the page. She was never a firebrand, in her writing or in her life. Her actions were pastoral rather than revolutionary; her reticence was rooted in the old-world domesticity she came from, which never quite left her. The resulting impulse was to subsume herself in deference to others; with this empathy she put those who would have otherwise gone unnoticed down to paper. Her father had hoped to free her from national feeling, and in many ways, he did; that freedom brought her to make a place home, all the same: La Foce, the people of Italy. What of herself she found, she found there.


Read earlier installments of Feminize Your Canon here. 

Lauren Kane is a writer who lives in New York. She is the assistant editor at The Paris Review.